If you’ve ever seen Sharon Van Etten live, you’ll know that she’s got an awful lot going for her. Chief among them is that stunning voice. Not since Neko Case first came on the scene has there been a more plainly stunning, shockingly natural singing voice than Van Etten’s. But if her last, mostly acoustic record, Because I Was In Love deftly put the confessional intimacy of her songs on display, then her new record, epic, goes in a whole other direction. This fantastic new album blows up the music behind Van Etten’s powerful voice, giving these songs all the depth and strength her singing, and her songwriting, lures us in with.
The breadth of the record’s palate isn’t immediately recognizable, but its instant tunefulness sure is. Opener “A Crime” is intense and moody, but it is also deeply infectious. Van Etten hard-strums chords on the guitar and sings like a woman on fire. She’s heartbroken here — “I’ll never be in love like that again,” she assures us over and over — but there’s nothing fragile about her singing. Instead, she runs the verses down on long, sharp lines that eventually outrun the melody and leave her breathless. It’s an impressive performance, made all the stronger by the hopeless-romantic vibe running deep in the track. As bitter as she sounds at songs beginning, the more she sings the refrain, the more she insists she’ll never make this mistake again, the more we know she kind of hopes she does.
That, in the end, is Van Etten’s greatest strength as a songwriter. No matter how dark things get — and they do get dark — there’s a faint hope off in the distance. But, more importantly, while that hope takes its sweet time getting to the here and now, Van Etten isn’t interested in playing the frail waif. She can snap with anger as on “A Crime”, or she can put it on the ‘you’ she’s singing to, the way she does on the full-band “Don’t Do It”. Rather than plead for a lover to stay, she puts the agency on her lover. “You will if you want to,” she sighs at the chorus’s end, shielding some disappointment but also showing a weary maturity.
With the exception of standout “One Day” — a pure pop song so good it speaks for itself — nowhere is Van Etten’s delivery better than on “Save Yourself”. The dusty tune, built up with shuffling drums and pedal steel, proves the impressive range of Van Etten’s singing. She morphs into a sultry country singer, with just a hint of smoke on her breath to pull us into the song’s trance as she delivers some quiet but deadly barbs. “Don’t you think I know, you’re only trying to save yourself,” she breaths out on the chorus. But it’s the last line — “just like everyone else” — that cuts the deepest, that robs her subject of their singularity. It’s a subtle but devastating blow, delivered perfectly, with enough of a seductive hush to make it hit hard.
The variety Van Etten finds in just seven songs makes epic a surprising, fresh listen all the way through. There’s also some creative risks that move out of the straight guitar-voice base we expect from the singer. “DsharpG”, in particular, fills up the middle of the record with six minutes of churning atmosphere. If there’s guitar in there, it’s hard to hear over the thick bed of keys that buzz through the song, as Van Etten turns in her most impressive performance, her voice rising and falling from haunting, echoed lows to aching heights. The song also echoes layers in other tracks, and sets us up for the raspy, spacious closer “Love More”, which gives the album a nice cohesion.
Sharon Van Etten is a brilliant singer and songwriter because, really, she calls us out for what we hold against female singer-songwriters (not to mention the gender issues those assumptions represent). We expect them to be heartbroken and beautiful, which Van Etten is, but we also expect them to sound and feel broken, reserved, even in need of rescue. Sharon Van Etten isn’t at all interested in that, she knows you can sound sad and strong at the same time. That a good song is in the details, and in the delivery, and she nails both with sharpness few songwriters — regardless of gender, or genre for that matter — can manage. Because I Was In Love was a heartfelt, strong introduction to a powerful new voice, but epic is a knockout front to back, and clear cut evidence that we have a powerful and lasting voice on our hands. So if you’re going to dismiss this album as some sort of coffeeshop folk — if you’re going to make that assumption — then it’s probably best you don’t hear this. Because, dude, I’d hate to be there when it knocked you on your ass.